Winning some rainbows

I am imagining Donald Trump’s fever dream. I am seeing a California forest, the kind that natives know, not the alpine wonders of the Sierra or the craggy cliffs of the northern coastline, but the real deal, yellow-gold grass and leaning bay trees and twisted madrones and lots of oaks of many sizes. And I am picturing a clearing in the forest, with a mysterious cluster of tipis in the background.

And in the foreground, an interesting number of children on stilts. The children are dressed like hippies, but they are not slowed down by chemicals produced outside their bodies. There are all races, all genders, all heights and weights. They are marching in formation. They stop, and they are joined by children on unicycles.

The unicyclists ride around for a while, and are in turn joined by other children, appearing from all parts of the forest, materializing like sprites. It’s sort of like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” except it’s happening in the afternoon and there are a lot more fairies.

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And once they have all gathered, they turn toward the crowd and start singing. And, oh, what’s that melody, so familiar…oh, right. “All we are saying is give peace a chance, all we are saying is give peace a chance,” and so on, and some children are flashing the peace sign, and everybody is flashing the peace sign, even people in the audience, and the song swirls around everyone and floats upward into the heat-washed sky.

This is not a dream; this is the way the future looks. Maybe only the California future, but  I’m good with that. We could be a self-sustaining country; if things get too weird, we’ll secede, and we’ll let North Carolina figure out what to do. The good news: They’ll know which bathroom to use.

We are at Camp Winnarainbow, in a remote part of Mendocino County, pretty near Laytonville which is pretty near Willits which is pretty near Ukiah…anything yet? It’s kinda sorta due east of Mendocino the town, the one with the insane views and the 900 T-shirt shops. But Laytonville is not tourist country. It is, however, Hog Farm country; the world’s oldest continually operational hippie commune is right next door.

(I do love the Hog Farm origin story. When it was first getting going, in Manhattan, it was asked to help with the Woodstock music festival. The Farmers built fire pits and trails, and were eventually — under mysterious circumstances — designated to provide security. At a bustling press conference, Wavy Gravy, already the farm’s spokeshuman, was asked about what he called his Please Force, a security strategy that involved asking people to please stop doing this thing and to please start doing that other thing.

(What kind of tools will you use to enforce your rules, he was asked. “Cream pies and Seltzer bottles,” he replied).

Camp Winnarainbow was started on Hog Farm land by Mr. Gravy, the political clown and activist and legend (he was once a Ben & Jerry’s flavor).  He and his wife Jaranara  (who is apparently the brains of the day-to-day camp business — Mr. Gravy refers to himself as a “figurehead”) have run the joint for 44 years. Wavy is still on site and conducts a morning reading, mostly from his  autobiography (“Something Good for a Change”) or from one of several joke books he keeps handy.

Sample Wavy Gravy joke: “What’s the difference between broccoli and boogers?” “Kids won’t eat broccoli.”

Winnarainbow is a circus and performing arts camp. In addition to the stilts and unicycles, there are courses in tumbling and aerial acts and stage magic and song-writing and improv comedy. Parents day features mini-shows highlighting all those skills and more.  It’s big fun, unless it’s too hot, in which case it’s still big fun, but stickier.

So, you may ask, what were we doing there on parents day? Did we have skin in the game? Do we have a daughter there? Nope. Granddaughter? No. Nephew? Niece? Uh-uh. Here’s the story:

Four years ago, Tracy signed up for the Big Sister program. Her “Little,” as they’re called, was a girl named August. That’s her, four years later, up on the Winnarainbow stage.

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So yes, she’s 11. She’s an inch taller than I am at 5’9, which is an interesting (what’s the cool word now?) challenge for her. During the festivities, August performed on devil sticks  with some other kids. I’m a total fan of circus tricks; I even like watching people trying to do circus tricks. It’s heartwarming.

Later, August participated in the most somber moment during the main stage festivities. A dozen kids gathered on stage. “Black lives matter,” said the kids, very matter-of-factly. It wasn’t a slogan; it was just true. Black. Lives. Matter. August recited a poem by Alice Walker.  There with other statements. Several started. “When young men in our community are being killed…” When you have responsibility for a black girl, you experience that reality a bit more viscerally. Shouldn’t be true; is anyway.

At the end of the presentation, the kids gathered at the front of the stage. They looked serious. They sang: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest” and the drums beat once, twice, thrice, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” and again, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest,” beat beat beat, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

There were probably dry eyes in the house. I don’t know. I only know that mine were not.

We got to know August gradually. Tracy took her places, and sometimes I would tag along. She was very bright, with a quicksilver grasp of new ideas and new situations. She wasn’t sure what to make of us (“You guys are just weird,” she’d say frequently; the last time was four days ago).  But she had fun doing the stuff we did, and we had fun listening to her enthusiasms.

Tracy and I worried privately about her. August is young, but puberty hits younger these days, and it doesn’t help that she looks a lot older than she is. And there’s schooling and friends and all the other things that keep Big Siblings (or whatever we are) fretful.

Also, she’s African-American and we ain’t. There have been cultural communication issues, probably more than we know about. But we figure any child likes love and support and requires firm guidelines, so we do the the best we can. I personally think that one-to-one contact is the only sane strategy in this multi-cultural era of bad feelings. Fewer slogans, more hanging out.

We took August to the Ai Wei Wei exhibit on Alcatraz. We had no idea what to expect; it was more an outing than a cultural experience. But she loved it. She had Tracy’s camera, and she spent a long time with the Lego portraits of political prisoners, going back and forth between the portraits and the wall cards describing the circumstances of each prisoner.

I have no theory about what she was thinking. August was mum on that matter, even as she is mum on a lot of matters. But sometimes, when you’re caring for a child, you just sit back and marvel. And when you’re our age, with grandchildren off in Canada or leading their own lives, having another human to nurture is quite wonderful.

So we sponsored her at Winnarainbow, spiritual home of my people. We didn’t really know how it would work out, but we took a flyer. You take a chance; you wait. The first time around, she was a little homesick. This time…


She loved it. My black little sister went to the white hippie camp (she was not the only black kid there; Winnarainbow does a lot of outreach), and next year she wants to stay the whole summer, every session. Her parents seem amenable. Early days yet, but I’m so glad it’s working out. Proud, even.

All we are saying is give peace a chance. Well, not all: We are also saying, “seltzer bottles and cream pies.” Because fun.

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Location photography by Tracy Johnston

Smoothing down the rough edges by Michelle Mizera






Make it stop

It was sometime right around when Donald Trump talked about how certain people were asking for moments of silence for the Dallas shooter (a lie, of course). It was after Orlando and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and Dallas, but before Nice and Turkey, and I decided I was  absolutely going to check out of the media universe altogether.

Fuck it all. I have a life to live in my fortunate corner of the universe. I have work to do. I have art to appreciate. I have personal relationships to nourish.  Plus, I’m old. I doubt that I will live long enough to see the seriously malign effects of climate change. Yes, I know where the oceans are supposed to be in 2100, but I damn sure know where I’m going to be in 2100. Plus, the grandchildren of my grandchildren will solve it using twine and neutrinos.

I saved the world!  Or my genetic spawn did, and that’s almost the same thing.

And it’s too much. I can’t stand that much bad news. My friend René was talking about a chum of his, an unreconstructed Bernieite,  who would send him daily missives bashing Hillary about some failed policy or newly revealed prevarication. (Hillary turned out to be a liar after all; that was disappointing). “I finally told him to stop. I’m sure most of that is true, but I’m just too anxious.” Because Trump. Because Trump and guns and bombs and trucks.

Oh wait, I forgot about goddam Brexit. Didn’t even make the cut.

The road was not supposed to be this bumpy

I’m anxious too. The New York Times is not my friend. I avoid television news because it’s so very stupid. Plus: It’s stupid people talking about stupid things. Either horse race garbage  (“Look, a new poll says there’s a five point difference! Five points! Margin of error is five points. This must be significant!”), or one of those vague general stories in which a correspondent stands beside a pile of smoking rubble and says, “at this time, nothing is known about the killer or killers.”

Or it’s Pokemon Go, in which reality is enhanced by cute little cartoon characters. Seems like everyone wanted to escape the anger and the stupidity (did I mention that?) this week. What’s another truck attack when I found Squirtle or Charizard down by the Sand Creek Massacre monument? Pokemon Go is even a hit in Saudi Arabia, where God knows they need some relief.

Oh right: Saudi Arabia involved in 9/11. That’s cold news now, raising the question: Why didn’t anyone publish it when it was hot news? That slipped under the radar too.

The Republican candidate for president, whose name I can no longer bear to type, wants to “declare war” on ISIS, unaware that we are already at war with ISIS only we don’t declare it anymore (the last time was in 1941), because we’re just not the sort of people who get involved in war. We are a peaceful people.

Also, he has not figured out that the revolution has been decentralized. ISIS doesn’t need territory so long as it has a Twitter account. The Caliphate is an idea now, and the only way to fight an idea is with a better idea, and we seem to have forgotten what ours is. Come to America, we have…products.

As I am writing this, news comes that three policeman were shot and killed in Baton Rouge.  Can you hear the shouts of “race war” now? That will be the subtext of the Republican convention, count on it.

So guns. So miles and acres of guns, bought and retained by people who have no trouble with state-mandated driver’s licenses but demand unregulated commerce in guns, guns that kill people. No one goes to shoot deer with an AR-15. Or a Sig Sauer MCX, which is what the guy in Orlando used.

In 2014, more people committed suicide using a gun than were killed in gun homicides. Of course, those folks could have just stabbed themselves to death, or poisoned themselves using standard laboratory chemicals, or  jumped off a cliff. But a gun is so much more certain. Pick it up, gaze at it. No puzzling over road maps trying to find a cliff, no hesitant stabbing motions after the first two or three, no exhausting search for standard lab chemicals. There’s nothing between the sad person and the completion of his own self-extinction.  Bang, bang, you’re —.

But, no no no, it’s second amendment all the way, even while people are second-amendmenting themselves in the foot, or second-amendmenting  their nine-year-olds after a night of drinking and gun-related hijinks. Or a kid finding Mommy’s “just for protection” gun and second-amendmenting two dogs and a neighbor.

It is fucking madness, and it’s not changing. Politicians are panderers and cowards; it’s part of the job description.  They are silent when people say they want the right to carry handguns into schools. I mean, what? What? Is there not an ounce of common sense left in the universe? What remains for me to learn in the public arena? I know my voice makes a difference and blah blah blah, but I constantly vote for the same women to go to Congress. They’re supposedly liberal, although one of them is the biggest suck-up to the security establishment ever. Privacy rights, ha! And she’s the Democrat.

The urge to retreat is overwhelming. The urge to search for news of the Antillean mango hummingbird. The feeling that watching my cat wash may be the most important thing I do all day. Perhaps a quest for wildflowers, or a journey to Argentina.

Of course, I could be a resident of Aleppo. No worries about trans-gender washrooms there. In western China, they are uninvolved in Hillary’s email scandal. In Yemen, they don’t have much time to consider three dead in the streets of Baton Rouge, because for them “three dead” is a relatively light day of slaughter. For us, in this extremely lucky corner of the world, to refuse to try harder because Donald Trump is a dangerous narcissist seems, you know, a little self-involved.

You want dangerous narcissists? The residents of Syria have just the guy for you.

Maybe we can’t do anything. Most of the people who tried to do something have failed. It’s the problem with doing difficult work; it’s hard. Failure is always there, whispering in your ear. But are we still civilized? Do we still believe in discourse, in ideas, in small plans made larger? Are we still interested in justice? Do we still wish to reduce suffering in our own city, our own state, our own world? Do we want to offer succor and hope? Well then, let’s keep soldiering on. Let’s make a fucking effort.

And after we change the world, we’re free to play Pokemon Go to our hearts’ content.

Yeah, I know how you feel


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Bearer of good news (“You like me. You really like me.”) Michelle Mizera